Program vs. Project: What’s the Difference?

Program vs. Project: What’s the Difference?

In today’s fast-moving digital world, leaders of agile teams can respond to challenges and opportunities with bold new initiatives, organizing talent around new concerns quickly. However, leaders often wrestle with the appropriate form of undertaking to launch, unsure whether to begin a single project or enact an entirely new program. You may wonder, “Well, what’s the difference?” As it turns out, quite a lot.

Project management is concerned with a small-form deliverable on a tight timeline. Program management means organizing and overseeing a number of related products that may represent separate projects leading to a large-scale desired outcome.

Project vs. program: The key differences

One of the key differences between a project and a program is that programs are much more like a form of portfolio management. They entail the active assessment and monitoring of multiple projects that belong to the same higher-level stakeholders.

Project Program
Works on a definite time frame Can be ongoing for extended time frames
Managed at the vertical level Managed directly by parent organization
Contains highly articulated, single-use objectives Contains objectives defined by entire entity’s scope and goals

This article serves as a guide to programs and projects, illustrating how they differ and discussing times when you might need one over the other.

Defining projects: Key characteristics

A project is considered temporary work to achieve a specific goal. A project may have a set of objectives or deliverables to produce. They also have a specific start and end date. Projects are typically overseen by a project manager and may have multiple internal and external stakeholders.

Some characteristics of projects include:

  • Clear objectives: A project generally starts by listing out strategic objectives in fairly explicit detail. The project team is briefed as a unit on what the overall goals of the project will be and their individual roles in bringing those objectives to pass.
  • Emphasis on deliverables: The allocation of tasks is based on the need for deadline-driven deliverables. Team members working on a project are expected to work in collaboration to complete tasks in a manner aligned with key performance indicators (KPIs) pre-established by the project manager.
  • Methodology matters: Different projects will require different strategies, but all should establish and emphasize an agreed-on approach that team members adhere to. Getting things done in a way that is definable by project-wide metrics is important.
  • Tight scope and short duration: Project management tends toward smaller blocks of time, wherein the scope is tightened in real time as iterations of the project continuously develop. While some projects may extend across months or more, most are time-blocked for completion in a matter of weeks or even days.
  • Handled by one functional unit: Although there might be multiple tasks delegated to individual team members inside a larger project, the project as a whole is generally managed by one vertical unit of workers. This could mean that a project is assigned to the marketing department or handled exclusively by the two-person copywriting team. When searching for the right independent professionals to build out a team for any project size, look no further than Upwork’s global pool of remote talent.

Defining programs: Key characteristics

A program refers to a group of related projects that combine to attain big-picture outcomes affecting a parent company or group of related entities. Programs are generally designed around greater business objectives that relate to a wider array of higher-level stakeholders.

Program management tends to center less on one dynamic leader and more on several management teams committed to a particular collection of projects.

Some characteristics of programs include:

  • Emphasis on outcomes: The business benefits that most programs are dedicated to bringing about can be intangible and opaque in nature. An emphasis on outcomes rather than objectives means that the program focus is on doing the “right” things. This could mean anything from reorganizing projects to reduce the companywide waste of resources to building hiring frameworks around a skills gap analysis.
  • Structured in phases: The end date of a program is rarely as set or identifiable as that of a project because program completions hinge on a number of inter-project dependencies and changing outcomes that are hard to predict the conclusion for. For this reason and others, programs are frequently structured in phases to accommodate developments as they occur, and end dates can shift as tools and strategies are refined along the way.
  • Hosts a variety of projects: Often, a program setup will house an array of projects that are managed at the ground level by a project management office (PMO) that communicates with higher-level stakeholders. These projects may or may not interrelate, but all are taken into account when measuring the program’s success or failure via key outcome metrics.
  • Large in scale and scope: Programs tend to be large-scale productions that have a wide scope affecting multiple functional areas. Because of the general girth of many programs, a program management professional (PGMP) may be enlisted to oversee and monitor a program’s reach and overall effectiveness throughout the process.
  • Goals are more malleable: Whereas projects tend to manage change, programs adapt to it and allow it to instruct outcome measurements. This makes goals in a program setting more flexible and open to continuous evolution throughout the life cycle of the program or even individual projects within it.

Program vs. project: Which do you need?

Projects and programs are both immensely valuable to organizations, and each has a role to play at varying times. Projects can be a critical component of ongoing programs, and the success or failure of a given program can easily influence project-oriented decision-making. However, effective leaders are often required to decide whether to address a challenge or opportunity through a program or a project.

The next section will discuss considerations that might signal the need for a program versus a project, or vice versa.

Program or project? How to decide which one you need

  • How tight or loose is the scope? Does this ideation require strict timetables and deadline-based deliverables, or are more ambiguous benefits set to a slower pace OK? The first would require a project setting and the second a program-level approach.
  • How many management roles are at play? If there’s just one or two departments needed for the work at hand, a project-based approach will suffice. If parent entities or other invested parties want separate units or more than one project management professional (PMP) on the scene, this may not be a short-term commitment and could best be handled in a programmatic manner.
  • How is change received or predicted? If you’re looking at several similar projects that have space to “breathe,” you’re most likely looking at program-level ideation. If alterations to a set of strategic goals will be met with a change management attitude, a project-oriented methodology is best.

Consulting a living resource, such as the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), is another great way to determine whether a project or program approach is best. The PMBOK represents the full body of all practices, terminologies, accepted standards, and recognized processes that make up the project management field.

Find the perfect professionals for your program or project

The question of program vs. project is an ever-changing one. What works for one set of circumstances might not work for the next in the same way.

Leverage Upwork to help you build a better team that can tackle any project or program that comes your way. With a full range of professional resources on everything from digital transformation strategies to the resumes of the web’s best workers, Upwork is the best place to hire independent professionals who can contribute to the success of any program or project.


Projects related to this article:
No items found.

Author Spotlight

Program vs. Project: What’s the Difference?
The Upwork Team

Upwork is the world’s work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent from across the globe. We serve everyone from one-person startups to large, Fortune 100 enterprises with a powerful, trust-driven platform that enables companies and talent to work together in new ways that unlock their potential.

Get This Article as a PDF

For easy printing, reading, and sharing.

Download PDF

Latest articles

X Icon